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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Kenta Maeda. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Yu Darvish. (AP Photo/Tim Bradbury, Pool)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #22 (November 20, 2017), page 7.

Asian highs and lows on the World Series mound

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

This year’s Major League Baseball (MLB) World Series was one of the best ever, featuring some great as well as terrible performances by Asian pitchers Kenta Maeda and Yu Darvish. But a racist incident directed at Darvish shows how far Asian MLB players have come — and how far they still have to go.

Both Darvish and Maeda came to MLB after successful careers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). One of the most hyped Japanese pitchers ever, Darvish began his MLB career in 2012 with the Texas Rangers, who paid nearly $110 million to sign him to a six-year deal.

Living up to the hype, Darvish led the league in strikeouts in his second season and has averaged more than a strikeout per inning while steadily driving his walk rate down. He has earned four All-Star appearances in five MLB seasons, missing 2015 due to Tommy John surgery.

Older than Darvish and already suffering from elbow problems, Maeda was signed in 2016 by Los Angeles to an eight-year contract worth at least $25 million. After a solid 2016, Maeda struggled to start this season, was demoted to the bullpen, and later returned to the rotation and completed another strong season.

Darvish joined Maeda on the Dodgers at the trade deadline when the Rangers, out of contention, swapped him to Los Angeles. The Asian pitching duo proved essential to the Dodgers’ early-round playoff successes, as Darvish won his two starts, surrendering one run in each, and Maeda pitched five scoreless, hitless innings over five games.

In the World Series, the Dodgers faced an excellent Houston Astros team that included Yuli Gurriel, a Cuba-born player who played for the NPB’s Yokohama Bay Stars in 2014. Two years later, Gurriel defected to the U.S. and signed with the Astros. After working his way up in the minors, Gurriel spent 2017 as Houston’s first baseman before creating the feel-bad story of this year’s World Series.

Darvish started Game 3 of the World Series after the teams split the first two games. After a scoreless first inning, Darvish allowed a leadoff home run to Gurriel in the second. Gurriel rounded the bases and returned to the dugout, where he was caught on camera pulling his eyes into a slant and apparently saying "chinito," a derogatory Spanish term for Asians.

Though he did not see the gesture, Darvish surrendered three more runs and was replaced before the end of the inning. Houston went on to win, 5-3, giving Darvish the loss, and after the game, discussion swirlled around Gurriel’s racist conduct.

When asked about the gesture, Gurriel apologized, explaining that "chinito" was a common Cuban term he hadn’t intended in an offensive way. He said he used the gesture and the term to joke that Darvish had given him an easy pitch to hit because he thought Gurriel was Japanese.

For his part, Darvish was gracious and forgiving, saying the gesture was "disrespectful to people around the world," but added "Nobody’s perfect … We’ll learn from it and we have to go forward." Gurriel offered to apologize to Darvish personally, but Darvish said it wasn’t necessary.

The league chose to suspend Gurriel for five games at the start of next season, explaining that the player’s union would likely have appealed any suspension that kept Gurriel out of the World Series. The resulting arbitration hearing would have created even more off-field drama, and the arbitrator could have postponed Gurriel’s suspension until next season anyway. And since players do not accrue salary during the postseason, suspending him next season ensures he will suffer a pay cut.

And since players are not paid for appearing in World Series games, suspending him next season ensures he will suffer a pay cut.

The series continued with Gurriel still playing. The Dodgers scored five runs in the ninth to win Game 4, and the Astros won a slugfest in Game 5, 13-12. Then Los Angeles came back from an early deficit to win Game 6, 3-1, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in an already dramatic series.

As he had been in the playoffs, Maeda was brilliant throughout the series, throwing almost six scoreless innings across four games. But he did not appear in Game 7, which was started by Darvish, seeking redemption.

But Darvish struggled with his control, again failing to escape the second inning after giving up five runs to the Astros. While the off-field drama might have unsettled Darvish, a more likely explanation lies in the baseballs.

Many pitchers complained that the official World Series baseballs were too slick, making it harder to control breaking pitches like Darvish’s slider. So, more pitches caught too much of the plate, and more of those pitches were hit hard. The statistics bear this out, as the eight home runs in Game 2 and the 24 total home runs in the series are both World Series records.

But instead of a record-breaking series, what will remain in the memory of Asian sports fans is Gurriel’s racist conduct towards Darvish and its consequences — or lack thereof.

On the one hand, we can take heart from the outrage against Gurriel. No significant sportswriter tried to defend him, dismiss the outrage, or argue against a suspension. His behavior was acknowledged and condemned as obvious racism, and Gurriel himself was instantly contrite.

On the other hand, Gurriel’s punishment is relatively minor and did not affect his World Series performance. When he initially made the gesture, none of his teammates apparently called him out on it. Moreover, his behavior is a clear indication that racism still exists in baseball.

Baseball, like other American major-league sports, has a long history of racist policies, players, and practices that it has only relatively recently begun to address. Baseball was segregated for 60 years, and the last team to integrate, the Boston Red Sox, did so less than 60 years ago.

Five years after that, Masanori Murakami became the first Japan-born MLB player. But only in the last 16 years have Asian players joined MLB in significant numbers. Clearly, far more progress needs to be made. We can only hope that the low point of this year’s World Series draws greater attention to racism in sports and that this kind of behavior no longer finds a place in our national pastime.

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